A recent Sacramento County grand jury report takes fire officials to task for lax oversight that allowed some area firefighters to boost their pay by claiming college degrees from so-called "diploma mills."
The report, titled "Where There's Smoke, There's Fire," stems from a 2007 investigation by The Bee's Andrew McIntosh. McIntosh found that in 2005 and early 2006, 16 capital city firefighters applied for and got education wage incentive raises using degrees they had purchased from online diploma mills. It cost the city about $50,000.
The phrase "diploma mill" typically refers to firms selling degrees that require little academic work.
"Because the Internet is an open environment, many educational providers have questionable resources or qualifications," the grand jury report states. "These so-called diploma mills require very little effort to complete a degree and provide credits that are often not transferable to legitimate institutions."
In his 2007 report, McIntosh found firefighters got their degrees from the online firms Madison University, Almeda University and Rochville University, which aren't recognized by established accrediting bodies. Fire officials became suspicious after a dozen more firefighters applied for the 5 percent education incentive raises using diplomas from those firms.
After review, the Fire Department rescinded the raises for the original 16 firefighters. But those paid raises between April 2005 and April 2006 were allowed to keep the extra money.
The union filed a grievance over the city's efforts to recoup the money. Rather than go to arbitration, officials agreed to a compromise: No one would be held accountable so long as the city could clarify the rules to ensure that education incentives applied only to degrees from properly accredited schools.
"It wasn't worth going through all the hassle," said Gil Basaldua, city labor relations manager.
Five employees in the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District also got extra pay based on "degrees from unaccredited providers," the grand jury said. Their department reprimanded them and docked their pay.
The grand jury didn't recommend changes because both fire departments have since tightened requirements. It offered a mild rebuke reminding leadership in both departments "that they are guardians of the public trust," and it is their job to make sure "public funds are spent in a cost-effective and appropriate manner."
Diploma mills crank out as many as 200,000 degrees a year and a number of those go to government workers, said George Gollin, a University of Illinois professor and board member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
"My guess is they're generally going to use these degrees for promotion," he said.
California is the only state in the country without rules governing postsecondary education institutions, Gollin said. "You have no law. Everyone else does," he said.